I’ve milked heaven knows how many cows over nearly a lifetime and never in a million years could I ever have predicted what is happening now. I won’t believe it until I see it with my own eyes, but the dairy industry claims that it now has robotic milking units that milk the cows without any human intervention at all. Mrs. Cow is trained to saunter into a “robotic” milking stall on a giant turntable when she has the urge to be milked, eats her grain nonchalantly while electronic sensors wash her udders, attach the milkers, empty her bag, and detach the milkers. Other electronic sensors monitor her health while she is milking herself. I suppose her cholesterol and blood pressure could be checked too. This would probably be a good time for a glowing reporter from the Happy Factory Society to interview her about how wonderful are giant, consolidated, animal confinement systems these days. She might have something interesting to say about health care, since hers is subsidized almost as completely as that of our Senators. Then she wanders out of her stall and lolls beside the manure lagoon on her robotic spa until she feels the urge to be milked again.
I have to conclude that today’s Mrs. Cow, while probably giving more milk than my Betsy in the days of yore, is not nearly as smart. Betsy would have learned how to beat the Happy Factory system in about four days and started frequenting the “robotic” stall every twenty minutes to get more grain which she loved dearly. In six months of robotic milking, she would have gained 500 pounds. Five thousand of her ilk would have bankrupted the Happy Factory and sent the price of corn soaring even higher than the romantic dreams of robotic farming.
It is not the notion of robotic milkers than amazes me so much. Our cars and trucks are being put together mostly by robots, so I suppose robot milkers are on the way too. It is the smarmy and naive felicity with which the press reports this kind of progress that floats me off into a dreamy world of make-believe. Reports, which are written by people who sound as if they have never seen a cow until yesterday, let alone ever milked one, inspire me to imagine the days when electronics will take care of everything. In just a year or two, it appears, electronic sensors will make the manure that follows Mrs. Cow around disappear magically into thin air. Electronic sensors out in the fields (often hundreds of miles away from Mrs. Cow) will protect the corn from insects, diseases and weeds and will turn on gentle rain showers as needed. The corn will yield 400 bushels per acre anyway, and be spirited out of the fields and into the cow factories by unmanned Drones. Electronic sensors will dry the corn properly, grind it into meal and sift it away to Mrs. Cow’s robotic milking stall. Nothing will ever break down. There will be no need for farmers. They will all be working in factories, making robots that never wear out.
At the very end of these winsome reports comes the real shocker. One (just ONE) of these robotic milking units costs $200,000. And a large dairy will need two or three.
By the time robots take over farming, I imagine the cost of milk will be in the neighborhood of $120 a gallon. Nooooo problem. Just increase the size of your milking herd by another 300,000 cows or so.
Tractors have gone robotic too. This is good news for us wordsmiths, strange as that may seem. I happened to look inside the cab of one of the tractors that can drive itself across the field without benefit of clergy or anyone else. The cab resembled the console and cockpit of a 747 jet.. Right there beside the air conditioner was a stack of magazines, not all of them necessarily the kind you leave out on your living room coffee table. The farmer grinned sheepishly. “Gotta have some way to stay awake,” he explained.
“Why’s that?” I asked. “If the thing runs itself, why do you have to stay awake. Why even be there at all?”
He grinned again. “Well, they haven’t figured out yet how to get the tractor to know precisely when it should turn itself around at the end of the field.”
Then, after swearing me to secrecy as to the person involved, he told me what he claims is a true story. To appreciate it, you have to understand the lay of our land here in north central Ohio. Much of it, as in this case, is fairly flat with lonely single-lane country roads creasing across it every mile. No fences, no trees, no nothing. Such roads are no challenge at all for today’s monster robot tractors. So the guy I am sworn not to mention by name fell asleep as he and his rig groaned across the trackless fields. When his monster came to a road, it barely shivered as it crunched through the roadside ditch and chisel-plowed half way across the thoroughfare before its master awoke and got it stopped.
Stay tuned. More robot farm stories on the way. Maybe you’ve got some to add to the robotic literature?
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.